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Accident Compensation Cases

Partner v Accident Compensation Corporation (HC, 20/02/95)

Judgment Text

This case concerns a single relatively straightforward issue. The question is one of statutory interpretation, namely whether the Accident Compensation Act 1982 provided cover for damage to teeth where the damage was suffered while a person was eating. 
On 29 November 1990, Mrs Margaret Partner bit into a hard object while eating a pie for lunch. The object, probably a piece of bone, fractured one of Mrs Partner's teeth which required root therapy and a crown. The dental repair work cost Mrs Partner $950.96 which, on 21 January 1991, she claimed from the Accident Compensation Corporation. 
On 4 February 1991, the Corporation declined Mrs Partner's claim, stating that “certain requirements under the Accident Compensation Act” meant her injury was “not acceptable as a personal injury by accident”. Specifically, the letter stated that her claim had been declined because she was chewing at the time of the injury. Mrs Partner consulted her solicitors, who applied for a review of the decision under s 101 of the Accident Compensation Act 1982. 
The review officer, Mr R.L. Bailey, also took the view that the 1982 Act denies cover to those who injure their teeth while chewing. This view was further supported by the Accident Compensation Appeal Authority on 29 January 1993. Mrs Partner now appeals to this Court. 
The Statutory Provisions 
As is well known, the Accident Compensation Act 1982 (which has now been replaced by an Act passed in 1992 to which reference will be made) provided no-fault cover for personal injuries caused by accident. Thus s 26 of the Act provided that: 
“(2) Subject to this section, — 
All persons who suffer personal injury by accident in New Zealand; and 
To the extent specified in sections 30, 31, and 32 of this Act, all persons who suffer personal injury by accident outside New Zealand, — shall have cover under this Act if the accident occurred on or after the 1st day of April 1983. ”
The “price” of this cover was the loss of the right to sue for damages: 
“27. Act to be a code — 
Subject to this section, where any person suffers personal injury by accident in New Zealand … no proceedings for damages arising directly or indirectly out of the injury … shall be brought in any Court in New Zealand independently of this Act, whether by that person or any other person, and whether under any rule of law or any enactment. ”
Section 26 clearly sets up a general position whereby all personal injuries by accident qualify for cover under the Act. This general position is subject to a number of exceptions. Section 76(3) of the Act was one such exception. It provided that where a person suffers damage to his or her teeth as a result of personal injury by accident: 
“(3) No payment in respect of any damage to natural teeth so suffered shall be made by the Corporation — 
If the damage resulted from the use of the teeth; ”
It is this provision which is central to Mrs Partner's case. The simple question on which the case turns is whether Mrs Partner's injury resulted from the use of her teeth within the meaning in s 76(3)(a). 
Counsel's Submissions 
(a) The Appellant's submissions 
Mr Armstrong, on behalf of Mrs Partner, presented a detailed series of submissions to the effect that his client's injury did not result from the “use” of her teeth within the statutory meaning of that word. 
Counsel first submitted that s 76 must be interpreted within the context of the Accident Compensation Act as a whole. He appealed to the purpose of the Act which, he submitted, was to provide cover for those suffering personal injury by accident. He submitted that Mrs Partner had clearly suffered personal injury by accident, thus bringing her within the Act's intended sphere. Recognising that s 76 is an exception to the general principle of cover for accidental injury, Mr Armstrong submitted that close analysis should be paid to the words of s 76 in light of the Act's overall purpose. 
The appellant's second submission involved a detailed analysis of the words “result”, “use” and “from”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed), “result” is defined as (inter alia): 
“The effect, consequence, issue, or outcome of some action, process, design, etc. … To arise as a consequence, effect, or conclusion from some action, process, etc; to end or conclude in a specified manner. ”
The word “use” is defined as: 
“The act of employing a thing for any (esp. a profitable) purpose; the fact, state or condition of being so employed; utilization or employment for or with some aim or purpose, application or conversion to some (esp. good or useful) end. ”
And the word “from” is defined as: 
“Denoting derivation, source, descent, or the like …  ”
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (5th ed) defines “result” as: 
“Arise as actual or follow as logical consequence from conditions, causes, premises, etc …  ”
Based on these definitions, Mr Armstrong submitted that the phrase “to result from the use of the teeth” means to arise as a logical consequence of the action being performed by the teeth. By focussing on the phrase “logical consequence” in the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Mr Armstrong was able to submit that s 76(3)(a) applies only to damage which logically follows from a particular use of the teeth. Thus damage resulting from eating nails would fall within the section since damage to teeth is a logical consequence of eating nails. However, damage resulting from eating a normal-looking pie would not fall within the section. Seizing on the words “specified manner” in the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “result”, Mr Armstrong submitted that a result is only of a “specified manner” when it follows logically from an action. He backed up this interpretation by noting that the legislature used the word “from” in s 76(3)(a), as opposed to saying “while the teeth were being used”
Mr Armstrong's third submission was an assertion that s 76 is intended to exclude claims for damage to teeth where the damage is foreseeable. In such cases, he submitted, it can rightly be said that there has been no “accident”. This submission also relied heavily on Parliament's alleged intention in passing the Accident Compensation Act. 
Finally, Mr Armstrong submitted that Parliament could not have intended to deprive Mrs Partner of both compensation under the Act and recourse against the manufacturer. He submitted that in situations such as this, where there would be an action available at common law, the Act must have been intended to provide cover. 
(b) The Respondent's submissions 
The submissions for the respondent were straightforward. According to the respondent, the Act is clear. Section 76(3) means that dental damage arising from the use of the teeth for any purpose will not be covered. In contrast, dental damage arising from a blow or other accident not involving the use of the teeth will be covered. Thus if a bottle were to be smashed against a person's tooth and break it, he or she would have cover. However if the damage resulted from an attempt to open the bottle with the person's teeth, there could be no cover. This was asserted to be the natural and ordinary meaning of the words. 
The respondent attacked the appellant's submissions in five ways. First, the Corporation claimed that Mrs Partner is seeking to place an illegitimately strained meaning on the words of s 76(3)(a). Secondly, the Corporation submitted that it is of no benefit to refer to broad notions of an Act's purpose when its words are clear. Thirdly, the Corporation claimed that the appellant's references to the Act's purpose are irrelevant given that s 76(3) was a departure from the Act's general position on personal injuries. Fourthly, the respondent submitted that the appellant's introduction of a concept of foreseeability was foreign both to s 76(3) and to the Act as a whole which was based on a “no-fault” scheme of compensation. Finally, the respondent submitted that the availability of a common law claim was irrelevant to the determination of cover under the Act. This is because the Act provided cover in many situations where there would have been no action at common law. 
The meaning of s 76(3)(a) 
(a) Approach to interpretation of the Statute 
As is routine in statutory interpretation cases, both counsel referred me to s 5(j) of the Acts interpretation Act 1924, which enjoins that every Act shall receive “such fair, large, and liberal construction and interpretation as will best ensure the attainment of the object of the Act and of such provision or enactment according to its true intent, meaning, and spirit.” Mr Armstrong in particular urged that I adopt a purposive approach to the interpretation of s 76. 
Counsel for the respondent drew attention to the following statement of the Court of Appeal in Accident Compensation Commission v Kivi [1980] 2 NZLR 385, 389: 
“ … it is important that in interpreting this major new Act (and indeed, we think, most Acts) the Courts should not lightly depart from the natural and ordinary meaning of words. The danger in composing an elaborate definition of an ordinary word in the English language, if the statutory context does not show that the word is used in an unusual sense, has been warned against often enough. ”
This was the approach followed by Mr P. J. Cartwright sitting as the Accident Compensation Appeal Authority in this case. He said at p 5 of his decision: 
“The first principle of statutory interpretation is that if the words of the statute are clear and unequivocal then they must be taken to mean what they say — or Parliament must be taken to have meant what it said. ”
In my view, this is clearly the correct approach. Purpose and context are indeed legitimate and important considerations when determining the meaning of statutory words. No statutory language can be read in isolation from its context in the wide sense. However, the Court can strain the meaning of ordinary words only so far. Where, as in this case, the words of a statute are clear and unambiguous, those words must be applied by the Courts. In this case the clear meaning of the statute, which I accept to be that advanced by the respondent, leads to an unfortunate result. Mrs Partner is denied both compensation under the Act, and any common law remedy against those responsible for her injury. However the unjustness of this result does not justify imposing an impossibly strained interpretation on the words of the Act. 
It is of no assistance to Mrs Partner but I observe that while s 10 of the Accident Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1992 maintains an exclusion from cover of injury to teeth “caused by the natural use of those teeth” (which clarifies the point now in issue), s 14 does not bar a claim brought independently of the new Act for damages for personal injury not covered by the Act. Thus if the accident had occurred after the commencement of the new Act Mrs Partner could take proceedings against whoever may have been responsible for the presence of the bone in the pie. 
(b) Earlier decisions 
The interpretation of s 76(3), and its predecessor s 110(2)(a) of the Accident Compensation Act 1972, has arisen in a number of cases before the Appeal Authority. In Smith (Decision No 41 2 June 1977) the appellant damaged her teeth while eating a chippolata. Blair J held that the words of the statute were clear, and thus dismissed her claim as a “hopeless case”. Blair J did comment that Parliament might wish to address the issue of compensation for persons who damage their teeth while eating. In Jurisich (Decision No 22/86) a linesman was holding a rope in his mouth in an emergency situation when a workmate pulled the rope causing the loss of a tooth. Judge Middleton also felt bound to apply the clear words of the statute, and denied cover under the Act. In Parkinson (Decision No 227) Judge Blair disallowed a claim by a young man who damaged his teeth while holding a yacht's mainsheet in his mouth. This too was held to be damage resulting from the use of the teeth. In Osborne (Decision NO 319/91) the Appeal Authority held that dental damage suffered while Mr Osborne was eating a sultana bun was barred from compensation by s 76(3)(a). 
The appeal is dismissed. I am unsure whether the respondent will now seek costs. If so, counsel should submit brief memoranda. 

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